One hundred and thirty-six square feet of tan coloured canvas, the little boat’s sails fill with the SSE breezes and slowly cross her cockpit as her skipper tacks to enter the narrow Hamoaze. Mainsail and mizzen filled, the backed jib is released, whipping across to the sounds of halyards rattling their blocks on the wide side decks. Her sharp, vertical stem bites deep into the slight wind against tide chop side and she ploughs forward, her sharply curved forefoot and flared lower bow parting the grey, jade green tinged, wavelets with ease. The annoying knocking from the centreboard, even when raised, a reminder that its fit in its case is best termed ‘loose’.
14’ 6” long, with 5’ 10” beam, this little boat is loaded with camping gear for her four-day cruise upriver. 9’ oars lie along coaming and side deck, resting in galvanised rowlocks and overhanging her transom. A pine paddle lashed down to port foredeck; within her hull, airtight waterproof bags lay low along hull side for stability and ‘extra’ buoyancy.
To the unknowledgeable observer, she makes a pretty sight, a handsome boat, white hulled with a burgundy sheer plank, stark against the woodland and grassy slopes of Mt. Edgecumbe Country Park on the western shore that be Cornwall. To the well-informed, standing at Devils Point on the eastern shore that be Devon, she is ‘Arwen’, a John Welsford designed ‘navigator’, a familiar sight on the coastal and estuarine waters around Plymouth Sound. And no, her skipper still hasn’t managed to eliminate that throat to clew crease that makes her so instantly recognisable.
Said skipper sheets in mainsail and mizzen, spilling a little wind on their downwind run. It reduces the ‘plunge and bounce motion’ as they pass through the entrance chop. He frets about how untidy the cockpit interior looks. With her under deck locker and smaller ‘sealed’ lockers in all thwarts, side, centre and stern, his little boat has plenty of storage and buoyancy space; and yet, she always seems crammed. A reflection of his habitually disorganised personality. Observers standing high enough on the shores would see bucket and boom crutch, two white fenders and two mooring warps of 10m and 15m length adorning the starboard forward cockpit side. Opposite on the port side, two more fenders, more mooring warps, spare fuel cans and the home-made galley box. Everything ‘excessively’ lashed to the hull with bungee and cord. It echoes the skippers semi-permanent paranoiac state in which he lives his life.
Floor space immediately aft of the front thwart side lockers and either side of the centre-case, occupied by anchors; a small kedge anchor with chain and 100’ of warp on port side. This ‘picnic stop’ Danforth anchor with attached anchor buddy bungee is for pulling his little boat off the beach and into deeper water during those beachside al fresco stops. On starboard floor, stored in another plastic blue tray, secured tightly by bungee cords and webbing straps, lies the ‘beast’ – a Bruce anchor, way too big for what he needs, but it was free and adds ballast. It has yet to drag even in fiercest currents, its weight and bulk reassure this amateur sailor who has yet to develop that strong understanding of sea, boat, weather and equipment that more experienced sailors have after spending countless decades on boats along their coasts. A late arrival to this sailing past-time, this skipper will learn with time what can and cannot be dispensed with. An experienced mountaineer, he knows he would only carry 30lbs maximum for a four-night camp, so he muses on why there so much ‘stuff’ in his boat? What were the words of the Dinghy Cruising Association journal editor Keith Muscott now ringing in his head? ‘dinghy cruising is just backpacking but on water’.
Skipper and boat ease their way up channel towards the Cremyll red port can marker, hugging inshore, conscious of their proximity to jagged rocky fingers protruding from the Cornish coastline. Here the outgoing ebb is less powerful but still not to be underestimated. And, the waters here run deep!
He feels the weight of history upon his shoulders, for he sails waters once plied by Sir Francis Chichester, as he bought his own boat down from Mashfords yard at Cremyll after her fitting out. Or Anne Davidson setting sail from the same yard in her four tonner ‘Felicity Ann’, the first lady to do a single handed transatlantic crossing. For two centuries at least, HM ships have sailed to and from the naval dockyard up at Devonport with families and friends gathering to wave them off or welcome them home from Devils Point on the eastern shore opposite. Even Nelson himself came through these straits at one time.
Across the waters, his gaze falls on the Devil’s Point peninsula with its stunning southerly and westerly views across the Tamar entrance towards Mt Edgecumbe and out across Drakes Island and Plymouth Sound with its magnificent breakwater, to the distant Eddystone lighthouse on the far horizon. To its north the famous Royal William yard, a former RN victualling yard. Nelson definitely alighted the admiral’s steps at this place. What must this place have been like when the cannon from its abandoned 1530’s blockhouse rang out to warn ships, a relict of Henry VIII’s coastal defences? How the skies of early 1940’s must have lit up above as the costal artillery search lights light up skies and seas in search of enemy planes and E boats, crews dashing from barracks to load the 6lb guns. Now only the gun and search light platforms remain.
And the Royal William Yard, once an immense hive of activity and skill? What would Architect Sir John Rennie make of the award winning, multimillion pound conversion of bakeries, armouries and cooperages to luxury apartments, restaurants and galleries? The skipper thinks he’d be pleased. Urban Splash, design architects and winners of multiple conservation and restoration awards for their work here. Grade 1 listed buildings sensitively converted in a £60 million refit. A cultural centre for this fair ocean city.
The little boat with her reflective skipper surges forward in a sudden gust; he eases mizzen and mainsail a little to take advantage of the increased breeze. A steady 3 kts against the last of the 0.2 kt southerly ebb flow. 310M on the compass, 0.1 nm to the Cremyll can. A quick glance to little yellow notebook with its pilotage notes and sketch maps; all is well; course is as it should be. He loves it when a plan actually works.
Little boat and skipper continue to skirt the rocks as the Cremyll gun battery at Mt Edgecumbe looms alongside. Tourists wave from the top of the semi-circular, forbidding, grey walled battery of seven guns. He waves back. Cameras click and whirr. Do the visitors know the battery was built as part of the inner sea defences in the 1860’s to protect the Royal William Victualling Yard and Navy dockyard at Devonport? Today, they rest, appreciating the stupendous views out over Drakes Island and the distant Plymouth Sound but few of these visitors might ever know that they stand on a Victorian fort that stands on a blockhouse dating from the 1540’s; which in turn, was occupied by royalist forces during our English Civil war. Perhaps, they may be aware of its more modern usage during WW2 when it was ‘reactivated’ as a guard room to protect the anti-submarine booms at the mouth of Hamoaze.
As skipper keeps a wary eye on the slow progress of the small Cremyll passenger ferry leaving its slipway ahead, he notices the flotsam of an immense ria ebb tide drifting by on its journey to the wider oceans. Twigs and driftwood, seaweed, plastic bottles, frayed blue three strand rope, a small white fender. It saddens him to see such detritus and the damage it causes the marine environment but then he is distracted from his gloomy thought train, for beneath it all, in the warmer surface waters drift the translucent, circular pale forms of jellyfish. An entire colony of jellyfish, their shimmering canopies adorned with four brownish circular outlines. No control on their direction, these delicate beings drift on the outgoing currents, destinations unknown. Oystercatchers skim the waves off the starboard bow as they shoot across towards Millbrook lake mudflats to grab a last meal before the flood tides cover their larder once more. A mackerel jumps high off his starboard aft quarter, its sides glistening in the sun. Yes, the sun is on his back, the breezes are fair, the scenery isgrand, the sense of history immense. Ahead the dockyards of Devonport, the mudflat lakes of Millbrook and St John’s with their wading birds.
It’s going to be a magnificent four-day cruise.